Post-Y2K it is time to turn attention back to the business of running a business. This year we are likely to see some harsh trading conditions as smaller intermediaries are squeezed by rising premiums, the rush to the internet and new customer-focused regulation entering the market.

Price may still be a significant factor in the purchasing decision, but customer service is also important. How well you treat your customers and the relationships you build with them could be the key to growing your profits. Satisfied customers are more likely to want to do business with you, recommend your business to others and, of course, they are cheaper to do business with.

Putting together a "customer care" plan is usually common sense and often more a matter of tightening up what already happens (although sometimes radical surgery is required). Elements of your plan may include the knowledge of your staff, how they are rewarded and marketing to existing customers.

However, one of the biggest barriers to effective customer care is access to information. In the year 1 BC (before computers) it was relatively simple to gain access to everything a business knew about a customer. Offices were smaller, the relationship with the customer was personal and there was a filing cabinet or two full of paper. Today, information can be held in a variety of alternative places, such as the Back Office System, in Word format on someone's hard disk, in an e-mail package on a laptop or even on a hand-held computer such as a Psion or Palm III.

At present it may not be practical to pull all of this data together and keep it in one place for a mix of technical and financial reasons. Current Back Office Systems are very insular, acting more as a support for paper than a working replacement. The next generation, some of which have appeared, will start to address "paper replacement" issues, but changing a Back Office System is never a cheap or easy task and there are still large gaps in their capability.

For now, it may be necessary to put together a simple work around to help with customer care. The smaller intermediary may benefit from investing in a scanner and a storage application put together in FileMaker Pro or some other low cost database package. Larger offices with more complicated information management needs might look to Lotus Domino, capable of managing a wide range of information overlooked by even the latest back office systems.

Technology has a key role to play in helping intermediaries survive by supporting good customer service. The reality is the technology tools which would allow you to offer great service are not quite there yet. For the time being at least a little imagination may be required!

- Ross Hall is the founder of Garol, the strategy consultancy and can be contacted on 020 8902 0618, or via e-mail at